For a group of people now in their 20th year of performing together, Little Big Town never seem content to coast. They began 2018 leading one of the most intriguing lineups available on their Breakers Tour, which included guests Kacey Musgraves and Midland, and this week, they start rehearsals for the Bandwagon Tour, a co-headlining trek with fellow superstar Miranda Lambert. The tour kicks off July 12th in Charlotte, North Carolina, and will feature a super-set with Miranda and LBT – who previously collaborated on “Smokin’ and Drinkin'” from Lambert’s Platinum – sharing the stage and swapping vocals on each other’s songs for a portion of the show.
The new tour comes as Little Big Town – Karen Fairchild, Jimi Westbrook, Phillip Sweet and Kimberly Schlapman – watch their latest single, the bubbly, disco-tinged “Summer Fever,” take off at country radio. On June 26th, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum will open The Power of Four, a new exhibit that focuses on the group’s artistic achievements and remarkable musical chemistry. With so much going on, Karen Fairchild weighs in on the band’s legacy of embracing musical risks, why they’ve never taken a break from working as a group, and how they’re getting their groove back with their latest single.
Looking at the singles leading up to “Summer Fever,” you had “Better Man,” “Happy People” and “When Someone Stops Loving You.” There’s drama or a message in all of those songs. How does it feel to come out of that into “Summer Fever,” which is so lighthearted and fun?
I really think that that’s what people want right now. We’re living in such a time of, it seems like, turmoil and chaos, and not that we’re turning our heads away from it, but we do need some levity. “Summer Fever” just feels really nostalgic and reminds me of all my trips to Panama City Beach, Florida, growing up. [Laughs]
It’s got that groove going on, and you guys worked with the ultimate groove man, Pharrell Williams, on the 2016 EP Wanderlust. Are we hearing the continuing influence of that collaboration in “Summer Fever?”
We learned a lot working with Pharrell. Anytime you have a collaborative experience with someone like Pharrell, you can’t help but let it seep into your bones. I guess it did come out in a way on “Summer Fever.” One thing I know I learned was the effect [that] an infectious melody and groove [can have] and the way it can make you feel. He’s so good at that. I think our collaborators on “Summer Fever,” Jesse Frasure and Shane McAnally, are good at that, too.
Also, it’s not lost on me that we’ve been singing a lot of cover things on TV shows for people, like singing on the Bee Gees special [CBS’ Stayin’ Alive]. I would like to think that this has a little bit of that influence on it, too. I’m such a fan of them.
“Summer Fever” marks a shift to a new production team for the band with Jesse Frasure and Shane McAnally. With Jesse acting as a writer and producer, was the production process pretty much started in the writing session?
Yeah, cause I wrote it with Cary Barlowe and Sam Roman and Jesse. As we were in there writing it, I went ahead and sang it top to bottom, and then we stacked some harmonies on it. I brought it home and played it for Jimi, and he loved it. I played it for the rest of the band in the middle of us shooting the video for “When Someone Stops Loving You.”
We’ve all been writing a lot of songs lately, but I just couldn’t forget about “Summer Fever.” We ended up finishing it and putting it out in time for summer. We finished the production and had a tracking session and cutting live drums and slide guitar and electric. We, in a way, deconstructed the song with Shane and Jesse, picking what we loved from that initial demo when we wrote it and kind of rebuilding it and making it our own.
“Summer Fever” is also a bit of a departure for you guys because there’s no set album recorded to follow it. I understand your next studio project is still taking shape?
There’s so many ways you can make a record, and we’ve done it about every way. Usually we have an entire record done before we choose the single, but it just felt like this needed to come out now. It definitely beats “Fall Fever.” [Laughs] In this day and age, why not? It’s the ability to write something in a room and build a track or cut it. When you have the favor of your label and the power to put it out to the fans quickly, that’s how they consume music now. I like the spontaneity of that. The whole process felt very exciting and alive to just be like, “Hey, let’s just put it out right now and let’s shoot a video.”
“There’s a lot of chaos going on, and we need a little bit of sunshine.” – Karen Fairchild on “Summer Fever”
The four of you have a lot of experience recording full albums, so do you find that you’re able to be a bit more freewheeling now than you would have been in the past when it comes to making music?
For sure. I think that comes with maturity and confidence. We haven’t necessarily commercially won with every song that we’ve put out, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a hit with fans. The reaction to “When Someone Stops Loving You” every night in the show – that’s a hit song. It didn’t necessarily have its heyday at radio, and I think it should have, but that’s my humble opinion. But it’s fun to just put something totally different out. It’s the perfect time. We all need it right now. There’s a lot of chaos going on, and we need a little bit of sunshine.
Going back to “When Someone Stops Loving You,” there seems to be a pattern that you’ll have one of the biggest songs of the year with something like “Better Man” or “Girl Crush” or “Tornado” toward the beginning of an album cycle, and then the follow-up singles like “When Someone Stops Loving You” or even “Sober” from the Pain Killer album, stall on the radio chart. It’s a head-scratcher.
I don’t really have an explanation for it, and I wish I did. We’ve always had a lot of great friends at radio, and a lot of support through the years. I’m not sure the reason why we don’t always get the “hall pass.” Not that the songs deserve a hall pass. I think they’ve all stood on their own. It’s just part of the chart I think these days. It’s stacked full.
It breaks my heart to see “When Someone Stops Loving You,” with such a stunning vocal from Jimi, not have its moment in the sun. But we aren’t a band that just gets completely hung up on that. The satisfaction we get every night standing in front of crowds of people and they still want to come hang with us for a couple hours and hear us sing these songs from [last album] The Breaker is enough for us. It’s just a sweet spot when it clicks with radio because it takes that song to such a bigger platform, but there’s of lots of ways these days.
If you look at those career-defining songs you’ve released, going back to “Boondocks” through “Pontoon” and “Tornado” and “Girl Crush” and “Better Man,” you realize Little Big Town has a catalog of songs that fans will want to hear for as long as you all can get onstage and sing them. Most of those songs weren’t automatic chart hits because they were all so different from what everyone else was doing when they first came out.
Even “Tornado,” I think we played that for the label last because at the moment it felt pretty progressive. We thought, “This is gonna scare them to death, but we love it.” The thing about [our label president Mike] Dungan is he always lets us stretch, so when we were playing that whole Tornado album for them, we played that title song last. It ended up becoming a Number One record, and who would have ever thought that? We’ve been so lucky to have some of these big moments. “Pontoon” was a game-changer. “Boondocks” was a game-changer, and “Girl Crush” took us to a place that we had never been before. So, we look back with nothing but gratitude. That’s why I’m so proud of the band. We’re just as hungry as we’ve ever been, and I like that “Summer Fever” feels new for the band. You can hear influences from other things that we’ve done, but it feels like something completely new.
No matter how much success you have, you retain that ability to remain hungry and creatively curious. That’s why you and Miranda Lambert make such an ideal pairing on the road this summer with the Bandwagon Tour. Her music has the same qualities.
Miranda inspires me all the time. I love spending time with her because she loves music and loves songs so much. She’s so passionate about it.
The Bandwagon Tour isn’t just a co-headlining bill with Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert. You’re actually including a full set in the show where Miranda is joining LBT to form a supergroup. What are you cooking up for that part of the show?
We start rehearsals this week. We’ve been brainstorming about what songs to do for awhile during a bunch of back-porch hanging meetings. We’ve come up with some ideas that we think the fans are going to love of combining songs and also covering things. We won’t know until these next few days in rehearsals. Honest to God, there isn’t a song of hers that I wouldn’t want to sing. I remember hearing “The House That Built Me” and having to pull my car over from tears. I feel that way about so much of her stuff. Nobody owns the stage like Miranda does, and she has those total kickass moments, and she just kills it.
We’ve done some things through the years together, but to actually be able to tour and be creative and hopefully write some songs, too, that’s what I’m hoping happens.
So Miranda is joining the band for this set, but the four of you in Little Big Town are pretty much self-contained most of the time. Besides a few one-off songs, like your duet with Luke Bryan on “Home Alone Tonight,” the members of Little Big Town have only released songs as a group. Has the thought of one of you pursuing a solo project ever come up?
We just think we’re better together. I think that’s definitely how I feel. There’s some kind of chemistry between the four of us, and we don’t ever talk about it. Everybody’s sung on other people’s records before, and we always discuss it as a group and give each other the go-ahead. We want each other to be creative. I’m not saying that somebody someday isn’t going to come and say that, but right now we can’t even find time to make a Christmas record, which we’ve always wanted to do. So, there are priorities that we always keep the band at the forefront. I don’t know why. I think we just like making music together.